Fatal Error: Your PC's down. Now what?

Here are some first steps to pull yourself out of the blue-screen blues.

When Marcia C. Brier gets a dreaded error message on her PC at MCB Communications, she knows she's on her own. Her IT department is nonexistent, as is the case at most small businesses.

Like any business owner, Brier, the company's founder and principal, has faced plenty of IT crises, and they've taken their toll -- holding hostage crucial e-mails, contact information and schedules while she rushed to meet deadlines.

"The computer and I don't like each other," she says, "and it makes me anxious when it doesn't work."

Small-business people everywhere share that anxiety. Only 15 percent of businesses with fewer than 20 employees have a full-time IT staff, according to research firm IDC.

And 55 percent of small-business owners worldwide -- defined as those with one to 100 employees -- say they deploy their most sophisticated technology themselves and don't like depending on outside companies for IT help, according to the 2007 International Small Business IT Survey from Dell and the International Council for Small Business.

Doing it yourself is not a bad strategy. The vast majority of small-business IT needs are similar to those of individual PC users, says Derek Meister, a service agent at Geek Squad, part of Minneapolis-based Best Buy.

But good intentions aside, the combination of business exigencies and limited IT knowledge can leave small-business people feeling helpless, frustrated and defeated as soon as an error message rears its ugly head.

PC problems can be tricky, Meister admits, but if you stay calm, you can handle many on your own. Here are some first steps to help you identify the problem and find the kind of help that is widely available for do-it-yourselfers.

Isolate the problem

Determine what you did just before the problem struck. Did your computer freeze up after you tried to open a particular application? Did you get an error message when you tried to print?

Think about whether you've changed anything on your computer recently. Have you installed a new piece of software? Added a new printer? Downloaded an update?

Write down what's happening, particularly any error messages you see or beep codes (a series of short and long beeps) you hear. Then use that information to start pinpointing a solution.

Take what you've learned to online communities such as Notebook Review to search for help from others who have posted fixes for the problem you're having.

"Ninety percent of the battle in terms of resolving an issue is defining an issue," Meister says. "So when you do get an error message, stop, read and record it, and look it up. Even taking that first line of that error message and putting it into Google will save you a lot of time down the road."

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